Sometimes, rivers shout their troubles. They catch fire. Or change color. Other times, they whisper, degrading slowly over time. And some cry for help in a voice so small that passersby can’t hear them at all; only those who know them well recognize the signs.
The Nanticoke River falls into the third category: Beautiful to look at now, but scientists and conservationists worry that trouble may be just beneath the surface, or around the bend.
On a frigid December morning, the 8-mile stretch from Riverton in Maryland to Phillip’s Landing in Delaware looked much as it may have when John Smith mapped these waters more than 400 years ago. Eagles and turkey vultures soared overhead. For miles, the view is more woods, few bulkheads and none of the housing developments that dot other places. Free of dams, the river remains an excellent shad spawning habitat. It still has a yellow perch fishery. It’s the only Maryland river to maintain a century-old private leasing system for raising oysters. It even has sturgeon again, an ancient species once thought to be gone from the state.
But those who keep close watch are noticing some worrisome signs for one of the Bay’s least disturbed tributaries. Nitrogen loads are increasing. The poultry industry is booming in the upper half of the river in Delaware. Also of concern is housing and commercial growth in Delaware, where stretches of unspoiled shoreline are at risk because the state does little to regulate waterfront development.
“The Nanticoke is a pretty amazing place. It’s not like the rest of the Eastern Shore,” said William Dennison, a vice president at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, who has overseen a series of annual report cards assessing the river’s ecological health. “But when I paddle on the Nanticoke, I think of what I can’t see, and there are a lot of things that bother me about it.”
In 2010, Dennison’s group gave the Nanticoke a B-minus on its first report card from the University of Maryland, and the river has largely maintained that grade — admittedly, nothing to brag about on a child’s report card, but better than the Cs and Ds given to many other Bay tributaries.
Still, Dennison is not sure the river can maintain even such a mediocre health rating.
Among his chief worries is the impact climate change is already having on the marshes around the river’s mouth, at Fishing Bay and along the nearby Blackwater River in low-lying Dorchester County. Rising sea level is eating away at those marshes, which when healthy, trap pollution and create habitat for fish and crabs. Warmer temperatures are also frying the marsh vegetation, which had already been damaged by invasive nutria, Dennison said. He called the situation a “rotting carpet,” but said it’s rotting from the inside, so it’s not always noticeable to the paddlers who ply the river as they follow the Captain John Smith National Historic Trail.
Also not noticeable: increasing levels of nitrogen, which the U.S. Geological Survey and the Nanticoke Watershed Alliance have been measuring for the last several years. Levels of phosphorus and nitrate have been on the rise in parts of the Nanticoke — as well as some other Eastern Shore rivers — since 2005, according to the USGS.
Too much nitrogen and phosphorus in the water from fertilizer, wastewater and urban runoff leads to algae blooms, which block light and prevents key grasses from growing. When the blooms die and decay, the process robs the water of dissolved oxygen essential for aquatic life and can shut down productive fisheries. Agriculture is the largest polluter of the Chesapeake — and the Nanticoke — where about three-fourths of the pollution load comes from farms.
Much of the nitrogen increase seen in the Nanticoke is a kind of delayed reaction, according to Scott Phillips, a USGS hydrologist. Nutrients in fertilizer that farmers over-applied to fields years — and even decades ago — soaked deep into the soil, and those pollutants are only now reaching the river via slow-moving groundwater, he explained.
“That is one of the major factors we’re up against,” he said.
While farmers and environmental officials can’t do much about the nitrogen already in the groundwater, they can stop adding to the problem by curtailing the over-application of fertilizer and taking more steps to prevent nutrients from washing off fields when it rains.
The Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, a pollution diet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency imposed in 2010, requires reductions in nutrients entering the Bay from all of its tributaries. For more than a decade, Maryland farmers have had to file nutrient management plans that prescribe limits on how much nitrogen and phosphorus they can apply to fertilize. The state is also phasing in a regulation that would bar spreading phosphorus-rich animal manure on fields already saturated with the nutrient.
Phillips said the steps are positive, but because of the lag time in how slowly ground water moves, results aren’t going to be immediate. And it’s far from clear that the efforts made to date are enough. Farmers in both Maryland and Delaware are supposed to be limiting their use of fertilizer, but officials check only a fraction of the farms in both states on an annual basis to see if their nutrient management plans are being followed. And many runoff-reducing practices are not required, so without adequate funding, farmers can’t afford to put them in.
“The idea is, ratchet down the nutrients, and we should get back to a restored Bay,” said Tom Parham, director of tidewater ecosystem assessment for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. But, he acknowledged, that’s easier said than done. So far, the water is not necessarily responding.
It’s Dennison’s experiences with another Shore river, the Choptank, that feed his worry about the Nanticoke. In 1987, when he began work as a graduate student at the Horn Point laboratory on the Choptank, skipjacks still dredged for oysters there. Dennison recalled snorkeling in the river’s lush grass beds and swimming along its banks. But 2003 brought the wettest year on record for Maryland, including Tropical Storm Isabel and the second-worst blizzard in state history. Those storms sent large plumes of sediment into the river, leading to a decline that has taken more than a decade to turn around.
Land use plays a big role in water quality, and by that yardstick, the Nanticoke remains relatively healthy, with 41 percent of its watershed in farming, 34 percent in forest and 11 percent in wetlands, according to the Nanticoke Watershed Alliance’s 2012 report. Just 7 percent of the land has been developed, though that’s up from 2 percent two decades ago.
Much of the watershed has been permanently shielded from development through the efforts of state and federal governments and of nonprofits such as the Conservation Fund, the Chesapeake Conservancy and the Nature Conservancy.
Some protected parcels include habitat for the Delmarva fox squirrel. Once at risk of extinction, it has since recovered and in 2015 was removed from the endangered species list.
To date, the Nature Conservancy has preserved 25,000 acres and still owns 13,000 acres, having transferred the rest to state or federal entities. It’s working with the U.S. Navy to preserve the land under its Chesapeake Test Range, 2,700 square miles of restricted airspace over the Bay and Delmarva where the military tests radar and planes.
In part because of these efforts, visitors to the Nanticoke are none the wiser about the terrestrial threats to its future, or the problems in the water on which they paddle. But Judith Stribling, an ecology professor at Salisbury University and past president of Friends of the Nanticoke River, spends a lot of time on the river. She can see the changes, in the data and on the ground, and broods about what’s coming, particularly in Delaware.
“How do you worry about a person’s health? You look at them, you see them gaining weight, not exercising, you get worried, before you even check their blood pressure,” she said. “You look at development, impervious surface, exploitation. And then your confirmation — the blood pressure check — is the water quality data.”
Most of the watershed’s growth has come on the Delaware end of the river, which includes the towns of Laurel, Seaford and Bridgeville as well as Sussex County. Laurel’s population was less than 4,000 in 2014; the town’s comprehensive plan, now 5 years old, projected growth to 10,000 people “within the next two to three decades.”
Bryan Ashby, a program manager with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, said the Laurel sewage plant will have to upgrade if that growth comes.
“If they happen to get that,” Ashby said of Laurel’s projected population, “it will become a stress.”
Bridgeville has an old sewage treatment facility and is under an EPA mandate to modernize it. The Seaford plant, he said, has been upgraded and can accommodate growth.
Poultry growth is also a concern. In 2014, Delaware ranked seventh in the nation for poultry production, with 1.7 billion pounds of meat chickens, according to the Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc. Sussex County produced the most poultry meat of all the counties nationwide in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent farm census in 2012.
Both Maryland and Delaware have seen changes in the scale of poultry operations. Where farms once had land and two or three houses, many now have no land and more houses — some more than a dozen, for thousands of chickens apiece. Those farmers pay someone to haul the manure, but often, it lands on fields nearby and can affect the water quality.
Another driver for Sussex County’s expanding poultry industry in the future is the relocation of a processing plant to Harbeson from Cordova MD. Ashby said he expects interest in poultry growing to increase.
The Delaware official said the state’s required nutrient management plans are the backbone of any animal feeding operation, and that any fertilizer applied from animal waste must be able to be absorbed by the crop.
But for longtime Nanticoke advocates, those reassurances are not enough.
“It’s an important river, and it’s largely been passed by, thank God,” said Joe Fehrer of The Nature Conservancy. “People tend to move straight through on their way between Baltimore and Ocean City.
“The Nanticoke has kind of been holding steady,” he added, but warned, “It wouldn’t take much to tip it one way or the other.”